journal writing

A guide to journal writing.

The world of journaling is fascinating and expansive. There are people who make their own notebooks and fill them with stunning artwork and gorgeous lettering. Others spend months writing in a journal and then burn it when they get to the end, only to start another one. Some people use cheap spiral-bound notebooks for journal writing while others invest in fancy blank books that are filled with upscale paper.

Journals are popular for this reason: they are highly flexible and can be used by a wide variety of people for a number of different purposes.

Almost all journals involve some kind of writing, and most journals are exclusively for writing, so it’s only natural that writers like us have an interest in journaling.

What is a Journal?

A journal is simply a record that is regularly kept. it can be an account of your personal experiences, a record of your thoughts and ideas, or a log of your lists. Yes, some people keep list journals!

Journals are also used for planning and tracking. For example, you might keep a fitness journal to track your diet and exercise. You’ll write down the foods you eat and the workouts you perform each day. The practice of tracking helps you stay mindful of what you’re trying to achieve, so you stay focused. You can then use the information you’ve tracked to evaluate and modify your behavior.

The word journal is also sometimes used to refer to notebooks that are used for journaling. These are available in a wide array of sizes, materials, and styles. Journal is also another word for a periodical, a magazine, or a newspaper.

Benefits of Journaling

Journaling has been shown to have numerous health benefits. According to Psychology Today, research shows that “journaling can increase your physical health. It may boost your immune system, and it can certainly help manage stressful events and experiences, thus decreasing the damage that stress can do to your body.”

From improving cognitive function by promoting clear thinking to increasing self-awareness and problem-solving, the benefits of journaling have been lauded by everyone from doctors to self-help gurus, spiritual advisers, former teenagers, business executives, and a litany of people from all walks of life — some of whom have consistently journaled for most of their lives and others who engage in journal writing periodically throughout their lives.

I’ve never seen anyone say anything bad about journaling. The only exception might be the occasional story in which someone’s privacy was disrespected and the contents of a private journal were revealed to the wrong people. But for the most part, journaling is widely endorsed as healthy and beneficial. If you can develop and maintain the habit, you will likely reap meaningful rewards.

Journaling to Benefit Your Writing

We’re all writers here. Most of the research and benefits of journaling apply to a few specific types of journaling, particularly keeping a tracker, a diary, or a reflective journal. But there’s a host of other things that we, as writers, can do with our journals, and the benefits are vast:

  • Use a journal to cultivate a daily writing habit.
  • Practice writing in your journal to improve your skills.
  • Work out problems in your journal, from finding the perfect word for a line of poetry to figuring out how to get your characters out of a tight spot you’ve written them into.
  • Create a tracker in your journal to log your daily writing. Each day, note your word count, the projects you worked on, or time spent writing. Tracking improves productivity (I use this myself when I need to increase my output or when I’m working on a large project, like a book).
  • A journal is an excellent tool for project planning. Start by defining the project and setting goals and milestones, and then add a tracker to log your progress. This can help you stay focused on a project so you actually finish it.
  • Use your journal as a brain dump or idea bank. Many of us are constantly bombarded by creative ideas that linger in our minds, sometimes distracting us from the work we need to get done. Dump those ideas into a journal and clear space in your brain for whatever you want to focus on. You can always revisit your idea bank to make a withdrawal later, when you need some inspiration.
  • Keep a record of your creative process. This can help you refine the way you work, especially if you’re trying to achieve specific goals, like finishing a novel or maintaining a blog. Review your process to see what you can improve the next time around.
  • Set up a submission and publication journal. This can help you stay on top of submissions and provide a useful reference so you never forget where you submitted or where your work has been published.

This is just a small sampling of some journaling that you can do to increase your writing productivity, improve your process, and solve problems that writers often face.

Looking for more inspiration?
Check out THESE journal ideas.

Getting Started with Journal Writing

journal writing

Journal writing is packed with benefits.

State Your Purpose

There’s no right or wrong way to journal. But it’s always a good idea to take a moment to think about how you’re going to use your journal and what you want to accomplish with it, especially before you invest a lot of time, money, or energy into purchasing a notebook, pens, and other journaling supplies. That stuff can distract you from your core purpose, and the whole point is to get some writing done.

Maybe your purpose is to simply let your creativity flow onto the pages without any set guidelines. Or maybe you’ll have a notebook divided into sections with tabs for different aspects of your journal writing. Maybe you’ll keep one journal or maybe you’ll have three or four. Just try to have a general sense of what you’re trying to achieve, whether it’s a creative outlet, a record of important life events, or a place to explore your writing ideas.

Should You Stick to a Schedule?

I have mixed feelings about this one. Most of my best journals have been the result of frequent but unscheduled writing sessions. There’s a fine line between nudging yourself to write in your journal every day and exerting too much pressure on yourself to the point that you freeze up and don’t get anything done. This is why I have a strong dislike for journals with dated pages. They tend to make people feel guilty for skipping a day (which also results in a blank page), and this often leads to abandoning the journal altogether.

Your journaling schedule (or lack thereof) should be based on your goals (which is why establishing your purpose first is important). If you are using your journal as a tool for creativity, you might not need a schedule. If you’re using it to cultivate daily writing habits, then a schedule is paramount. Schedules are also essential for trackers. And let’s face it, the more you work in your journal, the more you’ll gain from it.

Even if you don’t stick to a rigorous schedule, it’s important to do your journal writing somewhat regularly to reap the most benefits. Frequent journal writing will keep your creativity, ideas, and language flowing, and it will help you build good writing habits. You may only be able to journal on weekends or on certain days of the week. Sticking to a schedule (preferably daily) is the best way, but it’s not always realistic, and it doesn’t work for everyone.

Digital Journaling?

Let’s talk about digital versus a paper journal. Most people think of journals as physical, paper notebooks that you can hold in your hand and write in with a pen. But you can journal on a computer or on your smart phone or any other electronic device.

There are some benefits to digital journaling. First and foremost, you can set it up so that you’re never without your journal by using a cloud service. You might do most of your journaling at home, in a comfy desk chair, but if you need to do some journal writing when you’re away from you desk, you can do it on your phone. Apps like Evernote are ideal for this; you could also simply email your journal supplements to yourself and add them to your main journal later.

Digital also provides a stellar level of flexibility when it comes to editing, inserting, and organizing.

But there’s something to be said about the tactile experience of putting pen to paper when it comes to doing creative work. The experience simply can’t be replicated with a computer or even a stylus and a tablet. Over the years, I’ve encountered countless writers who swear by hand writing in a journal. And they’re not wrong. Writing by hand has numerous benefits, including stress relief, increased creativity, better learning and memory, improved mood, and better sleep.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but I find the act of writing with a pen on paper to be soothing.

Getting a Journal

You can journal in anything from a flimsy notebook that you picked up at the dollar store to an expensive, hand-crafted journal that eats a big chunk of your weekly budget. Same with pens: you can pick up disposable ballpoints for a few cents apiece or blow a bunch of cash on a fountain pen that you have to save up for.

Journaling supplies are a personal decision. Most of us need to experiment with a few different journaling tools to find what works best. And what works best for you today might not work in a few years.

Having said that, my recommendation is to start simple if you’re getting into journal writing for the first time. I have found that fancy supplies often sit on shelves only to be taken out and admired on occasion, whereas more affordable supplies become workhorses. When you’re using a fancy notebook and an expensive pen, you might feel like you should only use these tools if you’re about to compose a masterpiece, whereas working with affordable materials removes the pressure and allows you to create more freely, and in my experience, free creation always gets the best results.

moleskine journal writingPERSONAL RECOMMENDATION: Lately I’ve been using Moleskines and loving them (aff link). In terms of cost, they’re right in the middle, and I’ve found them comfortable for most purposes (I keep several journals and notebooks). They come in a variety of sizes, so you’re sure to find one that is comfortable for you. You can get hard or soft covers. There are several color options and some special-edition covers. They also come with blank, lined, dotted, and grid pages, and they’re available with different paper, such as sketchbook and watercolor paper. Basically, there’s something for everyone.

Some Journal Writing Tips

My number one advice when it comes to journaling is to take all other advice with a light heart and an open mind. Fellow journalists will passionately express what did and did not work for them. Be open to their experience and willing to try different things, but remember that what works for them might not work for you.

With that said, here are a few tips based on my own experience with journaling. These may or may not work for you, but I encourage you to at least give them a try (aff links):

  • Be messy in your journal. If you’re always trying to have perfect handwriting or only capture good ideas, you’ll stifle your creativity. If you need something pristine, set up a second journal for that type of work.
  • Start with an omni-journal, a journal in which you write anything and everything. I mean, you might not want to balance your budget it in. But allow yourself to write everything from life events to character sketches to poetry to freewrites.
  • Doodle. Whether you use doodling to create interesting lettering or stick figures in the margins to represent your characters, I have found that doodling enhances creativity. If you’re artistic, go ahead and put drawings in your journal (one of my favorite journals was a mix of art and writing).
  • If you’re just getting into journaling, I recommend starting with student-grade notebooks. My earliest journals were three-subject spiral-bound notebooks, sized at about nine by six inches. They are still among my favorites.
  • Watch out for supply addiction. The world of journaling is fraught with tempting tools and materials, and if you dip your toes into the many journaling communities online, you might find yourself chasing purchases rather than writing.
  • Give your journal a home. Keep it in a handy spot. My journal is almost always within reach. You never know when the urge to create will strike, and it’s good to be prepared. If you need privacy, find an appropriate place to stash your journal.
  • Get some sidekicks. I like to pick up pocket-sized notebooks that I can keep in various locations, such as my car or purse. If I need to jot something down, I can tear it out and tape it into my main journal later (I love washi tape for this purpose).
  • The blank page can be intimidating, and trying to journal on a schedule can inhibit creativity. But here’s the secret: all you have to do is crack open your journal and write a few words, no matter how silly, lame, or nonsensical. Things tend to start flowing once you turn on that faucet!
  • If all else fails, remember that journal prompts are your friend!

Most importantly, have fun with your journal. I have found myself stressing out about journaling, worrying about how to set up my journals and how many I should have and what I should write in them. The answer is always to just relax. Do what you can with what you have. Open the journal and just start writing.

Journal Writing

Do all writers keep journals? Of course not. But most of us have kept journals at some point, and journal writing has been instrumental in our development as writers.

Have you ever kept a journal? Do you keep one now? Which journaling tools do you use, and what do you put in your journal? What type of notebook do you use for your journal writing, or do you use a computer? What benefits of journaling have you experienced? Share your thoughts and experiences with journal writing by leaving a comment, and keep writing.

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